Saturday, October 11, 2008


On Friday I publicly defended my dissertation Understanding Asceticism. Body and Society in the Asceticism of St Isaac of Nineveh. During three hours Professor Samuel Rubenson (right) of Lund University examined every aspect of my book and I did my best to defend it. It was a good experience, though it certainly felt eerie to hear somebody else retell what I have written. It was a good day in all, both the Disputatio and the dinner in the evening.

And my dissertation? Here's what its about:

The scholarly understanding of asceticism has in the recent decades shifted away from a negative view where asceticism is primarily seen as (self-)renunciation, towards a view where the focus is on asceticism as performance and recreated identity. In this study the texts of St Isaac of Nineveh (7th century) is read in order to clarify the role of the body in asceticism and the relationship between asceticism and society.

For Isaac ascetic life is a way to manage the universally human fear of death. This fear can be detected beneath several everyday worries, such as fear of sickness and other hazards, but also in the form of pursuit of riches and power. It is a central aspect of Isaac’s thinking that society works by exploiting the human weaknesses called passions. This means that a life focused towards God is a life directed against life in society, in the “world”.

In order to understand ascetic techniques such as fasting, vigils and prayer, it is helpful to see them as symbolical acts similar to rituals. A person going through a ritual is on the one hand transformed; on the other hand a message is communicated to the community. Ascetic life can be seen as such a ritual that encompasses the entire life of the ascetic. The ascetic separates him- or herself from society in order to enter into community with the angels and the coming world. In this way the ascetic communicates a distancing from society and its structures.

To understand the symbolical content of the ascetic techniques it is necessary to know their original context. To fast will send out completely different signals in a society where all meals signify community, than in a society where meals are often taken alone. In general the ascetic techniques can be interpreted as either ways to distance oneself from society or for integration into the community of the coming world (or both).

In these techniques the body plays a special role. Isaac talks about the body in two contrasting ways. When describing the role of the body in prayer it is something very positive; when describing human weaknesses the body is very negative. This duality in body-talk suggests an awareness of the capacity of the body to function as a symbol rather than some extreme body-soul dualism. Within the framework of a certain ascetic technique the body comes to represent human weakness, a body of passions. In a different context the body will signify something else.

For Isaac ascetic life is a parallel to the sacraments of the Church. Both phenomena are understood as the breaking in of the next world in this one, and thus creating in this world a tangible image of a different possible world. When Isaac is describing ecstatic experiences he does it in terms of a union like that of human and divine in Christ, or in terms of the unity between the persons of the Holy Trinity. Through asceticism the ascetic becomes theology.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Milbank discussion

There is a extremely revealaing discussion with John Milbank posted at (HT:, F&T). It discusses the last chapter of Theology and Social Thery, but it goes off in all kinds of directions, and Milbank talks a bit about his background and stuff. For those of you, like me, still trying to figure out what it actually is Milbank wants to accomplish this is a great source.

Otherwise, the book came to be written really by accident in the sense that I was asked to write a textbook, and the publishers were totally horrified when I didn’t produce a text book. And when I set out to write it I really honestly and truly assumed I was going to talk about the mutual help that theology, sociology, and Marxism could give to each other. But somehow quite quickly when I started to get into that I felt that there was an incredible assumption going on in the usual approaches, that somehow social/scientific discourses were sort of theologically innocent or neutral, and that theology wasn’t inherently itself a social theory and an account of history. And I suppose that is the main methodological point in a sense that is being made.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Meme: The Academy and the Poor

Dan asks the difficult question: when confronted with 'the Poor' of our day, how do you justify your own academic endeavours?

As I have said before, living in Finland, "the poor" tend to be arather abstract concept. Although the divide between those that have and those that don't has widened considerably in Finland during the last few decades, what goves for poverty here is still being privileged if want takes the global perspective.

But that does not really change things that much. So I would answer the question this way.

1. The Academy has not given me very much in terms of money, power or security. I'm really badly paid (mind you I'm not complaining), my wife works in a kindergarten and she has a lot more than I. Which is ok, because I love my job. People that have jobs that need big salaty as motivation are kind of sad. What I'm saying with this is that working in the academy has for me moved me closer to the "poor" of our community, in that I share with them the constant feeling that when my short term working contract ends (next month) I have no real idea how to pay the mortages on our house.

2. I would never ever ever accept to do academic work that I do not feel in the long run at least serves to somehow change this world a little. Be it by teaching future pastors to see the global implications of their future work, or by working on theology in a way that asks the questions about the way our world functions. I cannot honestly say that I know of a way that I could hope to do more good than in the way I hope to do inside, or one the margin of academia. For me, in my situation, the university is still a place where there is at least some space for thinking against the powers of the world. As long as that is true (and that space is shrinking all the time), I'll try to hang on.

I'm not sure if a meme on a subject like this can work (a bit easier to name your favourite book!), but do feel tagged if you like to.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Book Review: Theology and the Political - The New Debate

I was very excited about this volume, since it seems to take the Radical Orthodoxy in the direction I find most interesting, and because it has such a impressive list of writers from outside of Theology, many of which I regard highly (Zizek, Toni Negri, Simon Critchley to a degree). And there is much of interest here (and a lot of filler, that has to be said), but still one comes away from it with some sense of disappontment. None of the writers from outside theology engage with the RO perspective, nor, with the exception of Zizek, with theology properly. Thus the title is kind of misleading.

In this volume the bad i mostly boring so I won't waste time on that. The writers that stand out for me in this volume is Zizek, Daniel M. Bell, Catherine Picstock (much better here than in "Radical Orthodoxy"), Graham Ward and John Millbank. In other words, the core of the RO-Movement all give good contributions here.

Zizek reads Chesterton like no other, and comes out with very interesting things about paganism and Christianity. Only Christianity gives us possibility to enjoy this world, because unlike for pagans, Christians do not belive that "tomorrow we will die". Funny as hell also, although I still do not understand why he insists on describing Christianity as perverse.

Bell reads Deleuze, and more interestingly, Anselm. To read Anselm away from the ususal economic framwork is fruitful, and of the many criticisms of Capitalism that are found in this book, Bell's is the one I feel most likely to return to.

Ward does Marx. His argument, that is repeated in many of the other essays, is that capitalism and marxism share too much in terms of basic premises, and that Christianity offers a radically different view of man and the world, one that is based on gift instead of contract, on love instead of fear and so on.

Millbank discusses the Christian claim to universality based on Badiou and Zizek. I think a lot of this is solid stuff. I have been hesitant to think much about the idea of universal truth and Milbank does have some interesting points. But there is an obvious problem, that is not so much visible here as in this interview.

(The ‘other religions’ thing doesn’t matter. The world as a whole is rapidly Christianizing and even in Islamic countries Muslims are finding their own intriguing Islamic way to Christ in ever increasing numbers; this is readily verifiable).
What on earth can he possibly mean? Is this Milbank's suggestion for how Christianity is to deal with "other religions". It seems absurdly naive, to the point of delusional. If this is what his notion Christian universalism is like, I think we'd better pass on it.

Can anybody possibly shed som light on what he could be referring to?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Real Method of Correlation

This recently occured to me, and I am a fool for just spilling it out on the net and not writing an article for some famous periodical on it.

I now why Tillich fell out of favour. It's David Tracy's fault.

See, every time I see a reference to correlation in theology these days, I always have the same feeling that there is something wrong. I always feel that what the writer is criticising has little resemblance to what Tillich intended with his correlation method.

Let me first describe what I feel is the usual notion of what the method of correlation does, then describe what Tillich really meant, and finally describe how this is the fault of poor Tracy.

It may all be down to a poor choice of term (English, as you know, was not one of Tillich's strengths). Usually people think that when using a correlation method in Theology you seek for similarities in the Christian tradition on the one hand, and for example (secular) philosophy on the other. In effect you would be saying something like "The Christian doctrine of sin is the same as Heidegger's notion of guilt". This method is correctly criticised for in effect using semi-religious language to re-tell the secular story.

However, this was not what Tillich meant with the method of correlation. For Tillich the point is to use philosophy, psychology, art and similar discourses to describe relevant questions in the present cultural situation. Theology then seeks to give answers to these questions, based on revelation (scripture, tradition and so on). Interestingly a few decades ago this idea was considered to be to give theology a to great role, believing that theology could actually provide answers to common human problems. Wouldn't it be better to just let Theology deal with religious problems?

I guess this is one of the reasons Tracy developed Tillichs method by adding the idea of the hermeneutic circle. No longer would Theology give answers to problems in the human situation but there would be a going back and forth where theology and the situation would interpret each other. This, however, seems to lead to a situation where theology looses its right to interpret itself by its own rules, which is what the method is usually criticised for.

Of course, Tracy is not completely wrong. What he describes does take place. But it is not a method for theology. What he describes is something that has to do with being a theologian, which is a slight but important difference.

Tillich's point was that Theology always has used the method of correlation and always will. And I still can't see how it could be otherwise if theology want to be relevant in any way. So, case in point. In the introduction of "Radical Orthodoxy - a New Theology" we read:

The present collection of essayes attempts to reclaim the world by situating its concerns and activities within a theological framework. Not simply returning in nostalgia to the premodern, it visits sites in which secularism has invested heavily - aesthetics, politics, sex, the body, personhood, visibility, space - and resituates them from a Christian standpoint; that is in terms of the Trinity, Christology, the Church and the Eucharist.

This is exactly what Tillich meant with correlation, to address concerns in the present world from a theological standpoint. Clearly, depending on what questions are asked, different aspects of the Christian tradition will be emphasized, but the fact that Tillich would put the focus on creation and salvation rather than Trinity and Christology is more down to him being Lutheran and not a (roman/anglo) catholic in an age where that mattered.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Radical Orthodoxy - a book review

Here's some thoughts on Radical Orthodoxy - A New Theology. I have to say that on the whole I am glad I read it. A few of the essay's are really good, and a few are quite bad, and a few are somewhere in between.

My faviorites are John Montag's essay on Revelation, and William T. Cavanaugh's text on the state. Montag's article for me cleared up why the reason-revelation dichotomy is false. That it is false i pretty obvious, but it was interesting to see how we got into that place.

Cavanaugh's text is my favorite of the bunch. I am actually discussing it more thoroughly in an article I'm writing at the moment. He shows how the state is a parody of the Church, that fails to deliver what both Church and State promises to deliver - peace. A Church that has given up this task (to bring peace) and delegated it to the secular state is to me a good definition of a State Church. We have a lot of those, and it really is a good question to ask if the can properly be called churches at all.

While I agree that the Eucharist should be the place where true peace is fostered, I wonder what we should do when it in practice clearly isn't to most. Most people that care about the Eucharist see it as some form of spiritual reload, and most, at least in Lutheran Finland, seem to see it as a nice coda after the sermon. These questions I discuss in my article...

But yeah, that bad ones. I already wrote on the one on Wittgenstein. I didn't understand a word of Catherine Pickstock's text on music. Graham Ward's text on the Body of Christ is interesting, but some of the themes hinted at there are quite disturbing... I am NOT sure if it is a good idea to explore Christ's relationship to Mary in terms of incest.

But the real rotten egg of the bunch is Philip Blond's essay on art. While he clearly knows way more about art than I do, I still feel he is in no position to lecture on what art should be like. I won't even go into why he makes these recommendations nor what they are, simply the idea that theology should somehow dictate art is preposterous. If that is his vision of a Christianity free from secular bonds, I'll go with the seculars, thank you. His vision of an art that correctly portays the real makes me think of Christian pop music, another disgusting concept.

Anyway, what I find inspiring with this book is that it covers such a wide area of themes, yet manages to keep one distinctive approach to them. This, I guess, is what has made Radical Orthodoxy so popular (for want of a better word). That, and the cool name. Although it is a bit ironic that a theology that carries a criticism of capitalism with it would make use of such a central capitalistic concept as the brand.

Next, I'll tackle the newer volume on Politics and Theology edited by Milbank.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Wittgensteinian metaphysics

I bet that header will get me a lot of google hits.

So, well, yeah, I am reading Radical Orthodoxy - a New Theology. The first two essay's I like. Millbank is doing his "I know how secularism came about" thing, and manages not to be very obnoxious... In the second essayJohn Montag traces the reason/revelation division back to Suárez, thus creating another theology bad guy. This is very good stuff.

But the third essay is much weaker. Here Conor Cunningham tries to show a few things. First that the "two Wittgensteins" are in fact rather close to each other, which is probably not very surprising. More importantly, Cunningham tries to show that Wittgenstein in spite of claims to the contrary, in fact builds his philosophy on (you guessed it) secular metaphysics. I do not find this convincing at all.

It is one thing to state that Wittgenstein in some sense stands in the tradition of Kant. This I can accept: there are clear parallels between Kant's critique of reason and Wittgenstein's "critique" of language. But when Cunningham tries to show that the (mostly later) Wittgenstein's ideas about language is a kind of undercover metaphysics the arguing becomes almost embarrassing.

Let me state first that I am no expert on Wittgenstein. The fact is I have read very little by him. But I do work in a very Wittgensteinian environment. Philosophy at my University is very much Wittgenstein so one tends to pick up a lot of Wittgensteinian influences by osmosis. (We actually have something of a tradition. Finland's greates philosopher, Georg Henrik von Wright, who succeeded Wittgentein as professor of Philosophy at Camebridge came here for the later part of his carreer. Besides being a close friend of Wittgentein he also oversaw the publication of most of the posthumous writings). Anyway, I do have some sense of what is usually considered to be themost central points in Wittgenstein's philosophy.

Cunnigham basically suggests that because Wittgenstein says that "language games" are given, this is to say that they have some kind of metaphysical status, analogous to Kant's categories. This seems to me to be to willfully misunderstand W's point. Cunnigham seems to think that Wittgenstein means that language game and the grammar of language games "exist" prior to the actually situation where they are put to use. This would indeed be some kind of covert metaphysics.

But what W means when he says that language games are given is rather that they are not constructed, that they are not "made up" and that they therefore could be in need of some kind of improvement by philosophers. They are the way they are. But it is absurd to read this as a kind of metaphysics. A language game does not exist prior to the life-form it functions in. When a new life-form arises (I guess by and by) a new language game arises with it. There is nothing mysterious about this. Language games are not like Kant's categories, they do not shape our use of language, the notion of language games just helps us describe how language functions.

I read this essay as a symptom of some kind of theological paranoia. A more generous approach would be to grant that Wittgenstein's philosophy accepts that various sorts of language, including Christian language does not have to measure up to some universal standard (reason, secular or otherwise), but functions according to its own logic. Isn't this pretty close to what RO is about?


I'm not sure if I feel ready to get back into theology-blogging, but maybe I'll give it a try. I'm reading theology again, and in the past blogging has been a good way for me to organize my reading.

First some updates, if anybody has wondered what I have been up to.

My thesis is more or less finished. Actually, It would have been finished already if a certain famous professor had not taken quite a bit more time than expected to read it and give it a go ahead...

As the last few posts showed, my interest in politics has lately overtaken my interest for theology... That may be changing at the moment, but as I say that is too soon to say. The combination of theology and politics is still my major area of interest.

If some of my more regular readers are still around, they will find this very ironic, but what I'm currently doing is trying to get a deeper understanding of, yep, postmodern theology. Particularly Radical Orthodoxy. I'm still not 100% convinced that it is worth while doing, but there are some aspects of it that intrigue me, and I have a hunch that my "expertise" on asceticism actually may have some value in this discussion... More about that later, maybe.

What I like about radical orthodoxy is that it shuns both conservative and liberal theology, although I do not at all agree with the image of 20th century theology that the foster. There seems to be a will to completely by-pass this century (and the 19th) among these writers. I don't think this is a valid way to be post-modern.

I am also intrigued my some of the political ideas around among these writers, but I'm still not sure about the way they fit together with the other ideas.

And I'm still to find a proper worked out radical orthodoxy ecclesiology - is there one? The entire concept points towards ecclesiology, but exactly what that ecclesiology is like seems to be difficult to articulate. But I may just have missed it. Suggestions welcome.

Anyway, I might post some on my continued reading of radical orthodoxy texts. Or not. Will see.